“Collaboration operates through a process in which the successful intellectual achievements of one person arouse the intellectual passions and enthusiasms of others.” - Alexander von Humboldt.

1700-1800s | Early Mountain Research

Mountain research as an endeavour of individual scientists has a long tradition going back to at least the 1700s, with scientists such as Horace Bénédict de Saussure, Alexander von Humboldt, and Louis Agassiz paving the way for those that would follow. Indeed, it was while contemplating the Andes from the heights of Ecuador’s Chimborazo mountain in 1802 that von Humboldt, a German naturalist and explorer, found inspiration for the central paradigm of his scientific legacy: that nature is a web of connections, and disrupting a single link will therefore impact the whole.

Despite this, it was well over a century before mountains gained wider attention as a field of research with important implications for policy and society, both nationally and internationally.

“In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.” - Alexander von Humboldt.

1913 | Revue de géographie alpine launched

The Revue de géographie alpine / Journal of Alpine Research was initiated by the French geographer Raoul Blanchard. At the time of its launch, the journal was focused on the European Alps (and the French Alps in particular), with the goal of making this research accessible to a broader scientific public.

1968 | IGU Commission on High-Altitude Geoecology Founded

The German geographer Carl Troll, himself inspired by von Humboldt, founded the International Geographical Union Commission on High-Altitude Geoecology in 1968, laying the foundations for interdisciplinary and international mountain research.

1971 | UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme Launched

The launch of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme raised the profile of mountains and provided a basis for more integrated mountain research; among the 14 projects initiated to reconcile conservation and biological diversity with socio-economic demands and cultural integrity was ‘Impact of Human Activities on Mountain Ecosystems.

“In the years that followed, this project provided a great stimulus to overcome the large gap between the natural and the social sciences and to develop methods and models for inter- and transdisciplinary approaches and collaboration.” – Bruno Messerli, Programme Director, Impact of Human Activities on Mountain Ecosystems.

1972 | UN Conference on the Human Environment

In June 1972, the United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden. It was the very first UN conference to be devoted entirely to environmental issues, stressing the need for international collaboration to prevent environmental problems going beyond international borders.

This gave further impetus to the UNESCO MAB Programme, and subsequently led to a series of mountain-focused events and initiatives, such as a conference exploring ‘The Future of the Alps’ that took place in Trento, Italy, in 1974, or an international workshop held in the same year in Munich, Germany, focused on ‘The Development of Mountain Environment: An Interdisciplinary Approach for a Future Strategy.’

‘‘Cooperation through multilateral or bilateral arrangements […] is essential to effectively control, prevent, reduce, and eliminate adverse environmental effects” – United Nations, 1972.

1981 | Mountain Research and Development Founded

The quarterly journal Mountain Research and Development (MRD) was founded by Jack Ives and published its first issue in 1981. This journal subsequently became an important instrument of communication as regional and global cooperation on mountain research and development grew. The subsequent founding of the Journal of Mountain Science (JMS) in 2004 and the Journal on Protected Mountain Area Research and Management (eco.mont) in 2008 further served to bring together and strengthen knowledge and debate regarding mountain-specific challenges and opportunities.

1992 | Mountains Included in UN Agenda 21

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21, was adopted by 178 Governments at the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992. Crucially, Agenda 21 placed mountains in the context of sustainable development with the inclusion of Chapter 13 on ‘Managing Fragile Ecosystems: Sustainable Mountain Development.’

The inclusion of this key mountain-focused chapter in Agenda 21 was, in part, thanks to the commitment of a group of mountain scientists, dubbed the ‘Mountain Mafia.’ The Mountain Mafia – among them Yuri Badenkov, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, Lawrence Hamilton, Jack Ives, Bruno Messerli, Peter Stone, and Maurice Strong – worked tirelessly to raise the profile of mountains in research and policy, promoting the idea of interdisciplinary research cooperation to address the challenges posed to mountain ecosystems at the global level.

1998 | UN General Assembly Designates International Year of Mountains

In recognition of the importance of mountain regions, a draft resolution adopted at the 1998 United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2002 as the International Year of Mountains. This reinforced the implementation of the mountain-focused Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, placing mountains on an equal footing with climate change, tropical deforestation, and desertification.

Among other objectives, the International Year of Mountains aimed to initiate new mountain research programmes. As a precondition for the successful follow-up of the International Year of Mountains, the implementation of Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, the development of national strategies for sustainable development, and the formulation of mountain-specific policies, the UN highlighted the need for a solid knowledge base regarding mountain ecosystems and their responses to global change. It is against this backdrop that the origins of the MRI can be found.

“Wherever we may come from, however high or small the hills or mountains may be in the land of our birth, we are all mountain people. We are all dependent on mountains, connected to them, and affected by them, in ways we may never have previously imagined.” – FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf, speaking at the global launch of the International Year of Mountains in December 2001.  

The Mountain Research Initiative

1996-1998 | Putting the Pieces Together

An interdisciplinary team of mountain scientists gathered in April 1996 at ICIMOD in Kathmandu (Nepal) to discuss a new initiative that would bring together ecological, hydrological, and socio-economic research and would push an interdisciplinary research agenda to enhance sustainable development in mountain regions. At a follow-up workshop in Pontresina (Switzerland) in April 1998, a draft work plan for such an initiative was developed. These two meetings were initiated and convened by Alfred Becker (†2010) and Harald Bugmann, both then at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

2000 | MRI Proposed at UN General Assembly

In light of the recognition of the significance of the world’s mountains, during the UN General Assembly in 2000 the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, the International Human Dimensions Programme, and the Global Terrestrial Observation System proposed the formation of the MRI in order to generate a better understanding of mountain systems and processes under global change – and thereby support sustainable development in mountain regions. The idea was not that the MRI would direct such a research programme itself, but rather facilitate the emergence of such research by creating a community of mountain researchers and promoting and coordinating research conducted by various groups and individuals worldwide.

A small group of dedicated scientists – including, but not limited to, Alfred Becker, Bill Bowman, Harald Bugmann, Georg Grabherr, Lisa Graumlich, Wilfried Häberli, Michael Kuhn, and Martin Price – further developed the work plan from the Pontresina workshop into an integrated interdisciplinary approach spanning a range of activities: monitoring, process studies, modelling, as well as providing guidance to policy and management.

“[The Mountain Research Initiative] strives to achieve an integrated approach for observing, modelling, and investigating global change phenomena and processes in mountain regions, including their impacts on ecosystems and socio-economic systems.” – Alfred Becker and Harald Bugmann, 2001.

2001 | MRI Coordination Office Established

The MRI Coordination Office was established in 2001 under Executive Director Mel Reasoner, and hosted by the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) in Bern, Switzerland. The Swiss ecologist Harald Bugmann served as the first Chair of the MRI's Scientific Advisory Board (now Co-Principal Investigators).

Under the tenure of Bugmann and Reasoner, the publication Global Change and Mountain Regions: An Overview of Current Knowledge was initiated. Published in 2005, 67 mountain researchers contributed to this comprehensive summary of the state of the science at that time and provided their recommendations for future research.

2003 | GLOCHAMORE Launched

The launch of the Global Change in Mountain Regions (GLOCHAMORE) project took place in 2003. This project, coordinated by the MRI and the University of Vienna, looked at global change in UNESCO Biosphere Reserves around the world. With the collaboration of over 250 scientists and Biosphere Reserve managers, GLOCHAMORE developed a targeted research strategy, which recommends specific actions to detect, monitor, and react to signals of global change at local and regional scales. This research strategy was subsequently used as the basis for UNESCO's Global and Climate Change in Mountain Sites (GLOCHAMOST) initiative.

2004 | MRI Networks Initiated

In 2004, following a successful proposal to the Swiss National Science Foundation led by Harald Bugmann, the MRI Coordination Office moved to ETH Zürich, Switzerland. During that same year, Gregory Greenwood joined the MRI as its new Executive Director. Under Greenwood’s guidance, the MRI initiated regional networks and networking events. These served to bring the mountain research community together, enabling collaboration and synthesis.

Over time, these efforts blossomed into a community of 10,000 global change researchers that was – under Greenwood – organized into regional networks in North and South America (TCA), Africa (AfroMont), and Europe (MRI-Europe), with regional initiatives in the Carpathians (S4C) and South-Eastern Europe (SEEmore).

2005 | Perth I: GLOCHAMORE Open Science Conference

In October 2005, many issues relevant to mountain areas were addressed during the Open Science Conference of the GLOCHAMORE project in Perth, Scotland. This event was organised by the Centre for Mountain Studies, Perth College UHI in collaboration with the MRI and other GLOCHAMORE project partners, and funded principally by the EU 6th Framework Programme, with further support from UNESCO. It was attended by 210 people from 41 countries, and proved to be the starting point for a series of conferences focused specifically on global change in mountain regions.

2007 | MRI Coordination Office Moves to University of Bern

In 2007, the Swiss hydrologist Rolf Weingartner succeeded Harald Bugmann as MRI Chair, and the MRI Coordination Office moved to the Institute of Geography at the University of Bern, Switzerland.

“The MRI is a unique, worldwide network which has fantastic potential.” – Rolf Weingartner, MRI Chair 2007-2019

2009 | MountainTRIP Project Launched

‘Mountain Sustainability: Transforming Research Into Practice (MountainTRIP)’, was a project funded by the European Union under its Seventh Framework Programme and developed and implemented by the MRI and its European partners from 2009 to 2011.

MountainTRIP produced a series of short videos that translated scientific results into guidance for practitioners of sustainable mountain development. The aim of this project was to inspire scientists to find new and effective ways of communicating their research results by providing examples of best practice.

2010 | Perth II: Global Change and the World's Mountains

Following on from the GLOCHAMORE Open Science Meeting in 2005, the MRI collaborated with the Centre for Mountain Studies, Perth College UHI to organize a second conference focused on global change in mountains. It took place in Perth, Scotland and was attended by 450 people from 60 countries. This conference provided an unparalleled opportunity for mountain scientists from a range of natural and social science disciplines to come together and present and discuss their research.

This conference resulted in the publication of a Special Issue of the peer-reviewed journal Mountain Research and Development. A one-day strategy session organized by the MRI took place after the conference in order to explore future research activities and means to ensure a high profile for mountain issues in the Rio+20 process and other global assessment and policy processes.

2013 | MRI Collaborates on Global Quantitative Assessment of Sustainable Mountain Development

As part of the Sustainable Mountain Development for Global Change (SMD4GC) programme, which ran from 2013 to 2018, the MRI collaborated with the University of Bern's Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) in order to develop an approach for assessing sustainable mountain development using the UN Sustainable Development Goals framework. The aim was to help contextualize and highlight the specific needs and challenges for mountain communities and ecosystems in addressing sustainable mountain development, thereby also informing policy and decision-making at the global, national, and subnational level. Work concluded on this project in 2018 with the publication of the Issue Brief Leaving No One in Mountains Behind, presenting initial steps towards localization of the 2030 Agenda to mountain areas.

2014 | MRI Lobbies for Mountains for Europe’s Future

As the Swiss representative of the Swiss Austrian Alliance for Mountain Research (CH-AT), in 2014 the MRI led a lobbying effort to increase mountain research in the European Union. The short term aim was to get more mountain research topics into Horizon 2020 calls; the long-term goal was to increase awareness among decision-makers about the importance of mountains for the whole of Europe.

These efforts resulted in the publication of Mountains for Europe's Future: A Strategic Research Agenda.

2015 | Perth III: Mountains of Our Future Earth

The third and last of the Perth mountain conferences took place in 2015, co-organized by the Centre for Mountain Studies, Perth College UHI, the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment, and the MRI. This conference was intended as a contribution to the global Future Earth programme. It aimed to present, evaluate, and synthesize progress in our understanding of global change in mountain regions; refine and agree on agendas for collaborative research; and foster effective interdisciplinary collaboration between participants.

The conference resulted in Special Issues of the journals Mountain Research and Development and Regional Environmental Change.

2016 | GEO Mountains Launched

GEO Mountains (formerly known as GEO-GNOME) was launched in 2016, and is co-led by the MRI and the National Research Council of Italy. A Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Work Programme Initiative, GEO Mountains seeks to bring together research institutions and mountain observation networks to collate and make available transboundary and inter- and transdisciplinary environmental and socio-ecological data and information on global change in mountains. In so doing, it hopes to increase the ease with which the scientific research community, local, national, and regional decision-makers, and other interested parties can access and use such data and information.

“How can we plan a sustainable future without good information? The MRI’s work connecting observatories and opening up access to mountain data is very important.” – Rolf Weingartner, MRI Chair 2007-2019.

2017 | The MRI Builds on Past Successes

In 2017, after 13 years of successful service to the MRI, Gregory Greenwood retired and was succeeded as MRI Executive Director by Carolina Adler. With this change in leadership came an opportunity for an internal strategic review. The MRI Chair and Co-Principal Investigators collaborated with Adler on the development of a strategy for the future of the MRI, designed to build on past successes and harness the considerable social and intellectual wealth fostered via the network over the years. The decision was taken to establish a decentralised coordination approach to mountain research and the MRI’s own activities in the regions. The aim was to focus on the global coordination effort and offer better support for the regions in the longer term.

As part of this new approach, establishing closer coordinated links with regional and local entities, networks, and individuals was prioritised. Among others, the MRI facilitated the transition from MRI Europe to NEMOR, as well as securing support for a transition from MRI Latin America to the new Cluster of Cooperation Conectate Andes+. In both cases, the MRI continues to be part of these networks’ activities and provides the strategic links and connections to support regional to global efforts, as well serving as a focal point for interregional exchange and collaboration.

This new direction for the MRI was heralded with the introduction of a new logo to represent the MRI and its mission: Making Connections for Our Changing Mountains.

“Co-production of knowledge is a social process, where enablers provide the conditions and the means for the research community to connect and thrive. The MRI is you and I!” – Carolina Adler, MRI Executive Director.

2018 | #VanishingGlaciers Highlighted at COP24

Mountain Glaciers: Vanishing Sources of Water and Life (#VanishingGlaciers) was an evidence-based communications campaign that ran on social media during, and was presented at, the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference (COP24) to highlight the large-scale environmental transformation occurring in the world’s mountains as glaciers melt – and to call for tougher action on emissions to mitigate their loss.

This project was coordinated by the MRI and brought together the mountain research community involved in the Sustainable Mountain Development for Global Change (SMD4GC) programme, condensing their research into the campaign’s 10 key messages.

2019 | Funding Support for the Future

In 2019, the MRI Coordination Office moved to its current host, the University of Bern's Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), and bade farewell to Rolf Weingartner as MRI Chair following his retirement. Weingartner was succeeded in his role as MRI Chair by Jörg Balsiger.

Importantly, during this period the MRI also secured continued support from the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) for the next four years (2019-2023), with additional support for the MRI’s activities and projects provided by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the swissuniversities Development and Cooperation Network (SUDAC), the Office of Foreign Affairs of the Principality of Liechtenstein, and Future Earth.

In the same year, the MRI received funding under the Adaptation at Altitude (A@A) global program to strengthen its coordination capacity and implement the GEO Mountains Work Plan. In doing so, the MRI continues to support long-term observations and information in mountain social-ecological systems, as envisioned by Bugmann and Becker in the MRI’s 2001 founding report.

2020 | Making Connections for Our Changing Mountains

By 2020, the MRI continued to maintain and established new links with key international and strategic partnerships to enhance the value of and support for mountain research globally (e.g., Group on Earth Observations, Belmont Forum, WMO, Future Earth, UNESCO MAB Mountain Biospheres programme, IPCC, UN Environment, among others).

Towards the end of 2020, the paper ‘Making Connections for Our Changing Mountains: Future Directions for the Mountain Research Initiative (MRI)’ was published in the journal Mountain Research and Development. This paper outlines the objectives of the MRI network and the flagship and community-led activities that will help the mountain research community to realize their potential and the MRI vision in future years.

“Our scientific work in mountains continues to advance scholarship and strengthen the value of global change research, considerably improving our knowledge base and understanding of mountains as social-ecological systems. However, it also plays a key role in identifying the diverse human values and goals that underpin desired outcomes for sustaining mountain ecosystems and people, and support transformative actions and pathways to sustainability through coproduction of knowledge.” – Adler et al, 2020.

Newsletter subscription